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Holt Wants Hearings on Anthrax

Frustrated over repeated refusals by the FBI to inform House and Senate lawmakers about the continuing investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill, one Member wants to turn up the heat with a series of oversight hearings on the probe.

In letters issued Friday, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), whose district is home to the postal box where the letters originated, requested that four House committees — the full Judiciary, Homeland Security, Intelligence and Oversight and Government Reform panels — as well as the Government Reform subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs, schedule probes into the investigation.

“I ask for your help in determining why we have been unable to bring the perpetrators of this heinous act to justice,” the New Jersey lawmaker wrote in the letter dated March 2. “It is time for Congress to provide effective oversight of the Department of Justice and the FBI.”

In recent months Holt, along with Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R), has spearheaded efforts to get a classified briefing from FBI officials on the status of the investigation into the 2001 incidents, the largest bioterrorism attack in the nation’s history.

The New Jersey lawmaker has noted that although he received several FBI briefings during the initial stages of the investigation — in addition to his district ties to the case, Holt’s Capitol Hill office was shut down during the attack after it was found to be contaminated with anthrax — he has not received any official information on the case since early 2003.

“This was the only major bioterrorism attack on the United States in recent years and we really ought to get to the bottom of it,” Holt said in an interview Friday. “It is important for Congress to know where we are with regard to those who would attack the country.”

Other lawmakers with connections to the investigation, officially dubbed “Amerithrax” by the FBI, have made similar criticisms in recent months.

Despite those complaints and requests, however, the FBI has declined to brief House or Senate lawmakers, asserting in a September letter to Holt that the bureau has elected to withhold information about attacks because of alleged leaks to the media following previous Congressional briefings on the issue.

According to Holt, the Justice Department again denied his request in a Feb. 8 letter, stating that officials determined that any briefings would also violate “long-standing policy against disclosing non-public information about pending matters.”

“The FBI’s refusal to give us information should not just be seen as an insult … I view it as an affront to Congress that leaves the American people less protected,” Holt said.

FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko responded to Holt’s call for oversight hearings in an e-mail Friday, stating: “The Department of Justice has reiterated its long-standing policy against disclosing non-public information about on-going criminal investigations.”

The Justice Department referred all questions on the investigation to the FBI.

The investigation is focused not only on the October 2001 anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill — which began when an intern to Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) opened a letter containing the biological agent — but also on the five anthrax-related deaths, including two U.S. Postal Service employees, as well as similar letters received by NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post.

In addition to the Daschle letter, an anthrax-laced letter also had been mailed to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), though that letter never reached its target because it was mistakenly delivered to the State Department.

It remains to be seen whether any House committees will agree to Holt’s request.

“We have received the letter, and we will take it into consideration as we develop the subcommittee agenda,” said Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs. Aides to the other panels either said Friday they had not yet received the letter or did not respond to requests for comment.

The New Jersey lawmaker said he believes the hearings will be sufficient to force FBI official back to cooperating with Congress.

“It shouldn’t require subpoenas,” Holt said. “With a moment’s consideration the bureau will decide that it is appropriate for them to brief Congress, and they would decide it would not be in their interest to stonewall Congress on this.”

In the meantime, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has agreed to meet with Leahy, the Senate Judiciary chairman, on the anthrax issue, although a Leahy spokeswoman declined to confirm any details about the meeting, stating only: “It’s scheduled.”

During a January oversight hearing on the Justice Department in which Gonzales raised the possibility of the briefing with FBI Director Robert Mueller, Leahy also indicated that he would expect the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), to be included. Neither Senator’s office could confirm Friday whether Specter has been invited to the meeting.

Kolko confirmed the meeting will take place, stating: “The FBI has offered to brief Senator Leahy, who was a potential victim in the anthrax attacks. The FBI is working to accommodate the Senator’s schedule.”

“We understand the frustration and the concern that exists with respect to the length of time [of the investigation]. This is a very complicated investigation,” Gonzales said according to a transcript of that hearing. “I know that the director is very committed to seeing some kind of conclusion in the relatively near future, and so we are prepared to sit down and brief the chairman with respect to the progress.”

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